Monday, June 11, 2012

The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, A Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con, by Amy Reading

Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
290 pp.

My thanks to Davina at and to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.  Just a minor point of personal interest: Davina's name appears in the acknowledgements for this book!

Amy Reading's account of con victim J. Frank Norfleet would make a really good movie.  Back in 1919, 54 year-old Norfleet, a rancher from Texas, was the victim of a large-scale con run by a crook named Joe Furey that ended up with Norfleet  losing about $45,000 and landing him twice that amount in debt.   Norfleet, as it turns out, never had a chance.  He was the perfect mark, and although he didn't know it, he had just entered onto the set of a perfectly-tuned, nine-act theater production, a routine so perfectly honed that the con men knew what exactly what lines Norfleet was going to say when. This routine works so well, and is so perfectly staged that it is nearly impossible for the mark to know  that he's actually being swindled until it's too late. In the aftermath, unlike some victims, Norfleet wasn't so much embarrassed about his own gullibility or worried about others' contempt; on the contrary, he was very public: he contacted the police, went to the newspapers, and told his wife what had happened to him. In his autobiography he tried to explain why he was so gullible:
 "With us of the Plains country, a man's word was his bond. Our cattle deals, our land sales -- transactions running into many thousands, frequently -- were often completed 'sight unseen,' the whole agreements being based on verbal representations and verbal understandings...If I was gullible, I was simply following the reasoning habits I had acquired in my lifetime of experience." 

Not to mention, Reading continues, that if these understandings didn't work out, shooting or hanging were likely end results.

As the author notes, "Joe Furey didn't know whom he was dealing with when he fingered J. Frank Norfleet." He probably also didn't figure on Frank deciding to take matters into his own hands to go after the five people responsible for fleecing him.  Frank's quest is a wild story, and using some of the techniques employed by the con men, involves his own brand of theatrics and disguises, some cloak-and-dagger moments and even a wild chase or two. Reading's research is based on several sources  including police files, newspapers, court records, and Norfleet's two autobiographies (1924, 1927).  Yet the author poses the question of whether or not it's Norfleet's readers who are being conned, and ultimately the readers of her book in regards to Frank's years in pursuit of vengeance. Setting her other sources against his own writings, she points out a number of inconsistencies between the man who reportedly lived by the "cowboy code of honor," and what may have really happened during his long years of journeying for justice.

Around Norfleet's story, the author examines how the "confidence-man" became a regular fixture in America, as well as how the industry of con artistry developed alongside rapid economic US expansion since the 19th century.  The swindling business not only tried to keep up with what was happening as the economy became stronger, but always looking for opportunity, sought to  "fill in the uncharted terrain that opens up when business innovation gallops ahead of legislation."  Speculation and even counterfeiting, she notes, actually helped the American economy to grow; corruption in the policing agencies and turning a blind eye here and there allowed the illegal activities to continue. She also notes that we as Americans are people used to being conned, and often pay for the privilege, citing the crowds of people who thronged to see P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid" for example.

While Norfleet's story is captivating in its own right, around that wild ride the book gets a bit bogged down in detail that is frankly, a bit boring.  So many parts of the narrative could have been presented in more of an encapsulated summary format rather than going on and on with lengthy exposition that has to be sifted through slowly.   But these "skimworthy" parts are offset by small glimpses of American life as the country's economy began to boom and expand.

Overall, this book does have a great deal of appeal  -- there's the big con, the quest for revenge, and the moments of payback that make it especially readable and interesting.  For the most part, it managed to capture my attention, despite the s-l-o-w and periodically sloggy details.  With people still reeling from events like the Bernie Madoff fraud case, and opening their emails daily to a number of potential con scams, the book is a timely read. It is a bit more detail oriented with a lot of historical interest; it's not really a book club kind of read or something that might attract the attention of the casual nonfiction reader. I liked it, and would say that if anyone is at all interested in the history of fraud and con artistry in the US, Reading's book offers its readers an interesting perspective on the topic.